Buccaneers 15 – Sligo 22
The opening day of any season is one often filled with anticipation, excitement, and even fear. No matter what the sport a season curtain-raiser allows players, coaches and fans alike to dream about what might be. Dublin GAA fans, Spurs soccer fans, and Leinster rugby fans know only too well how quickly this sense of eternal optimism can be dashed as their team stutters to kick their season into gear. With these mixed feelings of anticipation and trepidation, Sligo travelled to Dubarry Park in Athlone to kick off their season against the formidable firepower of Buccaneers. Sligo had failed to win away from home last season, and faced a tough task against a Buccaneers side that boasted an impressive mix of youth and experience.
Sligo started with a near full strength line-up that included a number of new faces, with Mataele Fafita, Andre Taurerewa and Paddy Pearson all making their debut in the red jerseys. In ideal conditions for rugby Sligo began brightly and within two minutes some excellent offensive defence work forced Buccaneers to cough up a penalty on their 22m line in front of the posts. Full back Kaka Machitidze confidently struck his kick over to hand Sligo an early 3-0 lead. Straight from the restart Buccaneers forced their way into Sligo territory and won a penalty deep in Sligo territory, surprisingly they kicked to the corner and won a line-out on the Sligo 5m line. However, setting the tone for the first half, Sligo defended superbly and some big hits forced a turnover. Sligo moved forward and began to test the Buccaneers defence. This pressure was finally turned into points when a well placed tactical kick by out-half Paddy Pearson led to Sligo turning over a Buccaneers lineout 10m out and the forwards drove their way powerfully over the line to force the gameâ€™s opening score. Flanker Cathal Culhane was the man who emerged from the maul with the credit for the score. Kaka Machitidze made no mistake with the difficult conversion and Sligo moved into a commanding 10-0 lead with ten minutes on the clock.
The early encounters had been played a fearsome pace and this did not relent as Buccaneers retaliated quickly to Sligoâ€™s unexpected start with another penalty kicked to touch and rewarded with a line out 5m from the Sligo line. A pre-planned line out routine looked to contain a forward pass but it was missed by the referee and Buccaneers drove over to register their first score of the season. The conversion was missed cutting Sligoâ€™s lead to 10-5. Unfazed by the controversial score, Sligo pressurised straight from the restart and a huge hit by Tongan No.8 Mataele Fafita won Sligo a penalty 30m out. This was again expertly put away by the unflappable Kaka Machitidze to push Sligo 13-5 ahead. The game was now end to end with both teams taking advantage of the new ELVs to produce some free flowing rugby with both teams looking dangerous in attack. Scrum-half Billy Leahy produced a turnover from a Buccaneers scrum and Sligo attacked down the right flank with winger David Gerrity and James Wilson combining to nearly force another try which was only narrowly denied by an excellent try-saving tackle.
Sligoâ€™s aggressive defence was proving the key to the first half with big hits and hard work in the loose laying the foundations for the team to build on. On the half hour mark again this aggression turned defence into attack, winning a penalty 30m out when a Buccaneers player was penalised for not releasing. Machitidze was making kicking look easy in the benign conditions and this one was no different as he bisected the posts once more to push Sligo 16-5 in front. Machitidze added another penalty shortly after from an infringement in a ruck as Sligoâ€™s industrious first half work continued as Buccaneers began to get frustrated. This frustation boiled over in first half injury time as a Buccaneers player was extremely fortunate to get away with a disgraceful two-footed stamp on a prone Sligo player. On video evidence this looked a certain red card if spotted by the referee. Following a slight melee between both sets of players following this ugly incident the referee blew for half time with Sligo leading impressively by 19-5.
Sligo started the 2nd half just as they had finished the first, the pack working hard to steal a Buccaneers line out and a sharp break by Fafita gave Sligo a promising attacking lineout on the Buccaneers 22m line. This lineout was pulled down and Sligo were again rewarded with an early penalty. Machitidze made it six out of six for the day with another accurate kick to increase Sligoâ€™s lead to 22-5. Sligo piled on the pressure and another break, this time from new centre, Andre Taurerewa, gave winger Nick Reynolds a chance to show his pace down the left wing. Reynolds kicked through and only some desperate last-gasp defending from Buccaneers stopped Sligo from scoring their second try of the afternoon. Sligo continued to pressurise the line with Fafita and Wilson making some great headway as Sligo dominated the early exchanges of the half. Buccaneers looked rocked and the rest of the game appeared to be a formality for a Sligo side in complete control.
However the momentum of the entire game was changed by a sensational Buccaneers try on the hour mark. Their backline which up until this point had been very quiet suddenly exploded with a break from their outhalf, Andrew Hayman, he linked up well with a number of support runners and two quality offloads led to Buccaneers No.8 Mark Madden going over in the corner for a vital score. This score inspired the home side and with Hayman becoming increasingly influential they started to get on top and take the game to a Sligo side that were starting to look a little jaded. Sligoâ€™s cause was not helped by a harsh yellow card to flanker Cathal Culhane on 75 minutes for a late tackle, and Buccaneers continued to attack in an effort to secure a bonus point. This point was attained with three minutes remaining as the pressure finally told on the defiant Sligo defence when a quick penalty led to a Buccaneers try in the corner to close Sligoâ€™s lead to 22-15. Suddenly a game that seemed dead on the hour now looked wide open, and with a vocal home support behind them Buccaneers went in search of a match saving score. Thankfully for Sligo a knock-on when in good position by Buccaneers signalled the end of the game and a relieved Sligo registered their first away win in over a year by a final score of 22-15.
As season openers go this was an excellent victory on a ground where results have not been favourable to Sligo in the past. For an hour they looked like a side going places with forwards Fafita and Wilson to the fore, and captain Ross Mannion influential in the loose. Pearson looked assured at outhalf with his distribution and tactical kicking good, while in fullback Machitidze Sligo have a reliable and deadly place kicker. They dominated the set pieces with their scrum in particular looking strong; the forwards looked well drilled and punished the home side with their aggressive rucking and defence. The final quarter of the game was error-strewn by Sligo and mixed with some ill discipline this allowed Buccaneers back into a game that looked over at half-time. This can be put down to Sligoâ€™s lack of match practice and with this opening game under their belt, Sligo coach Joe Walsh will be looking to continue this form in the upcoming league games. As Sligo RFC president Conor Frazer commented after the game it â€œwas a great start and provides a platform to build on for rest of the seasonâ€?. And for the many Sligo supporters in attendance it allowed them to continue to look forward with anticipation to the rest of the season, with any trepidation quickly blown away by the exciting, flowing rugby shown in that promising first hour.